One of the most important responsibilities boards of educations face across New Jersey is negotiating with their unions. Bargaining can be at times both a daunting and difficult task, especially if you are new to your board or even new to your board’s negotiations committee.

However, this responsibility is crucial because it has an extraordinary impact on a district’s budget, and therefore, its educational programming. Let’s take a quick look at basic, but important, bargaining considerations for new or veteran board members.

Preparation is Key

Union negotiators are going to come to the table prepared to make an argument for what they think is just and right. Preparation by a board for negotiations should begin well in advance of the first bargaining session.

Preparation activities should include costing out the contract; meeting with administrators and supervisors; conferring with outside consultants who can provide a contract review, salary guide analysis and insurance cost containment advice; appointing a negotiations team; gathering comparative data; and developing initial bargaining proposals. Going to the bargaining table without proper preparation will bog down negotiations, damage the board’s credibility, and impede the accomplishment of board goals.

It’s important to have as much feedback from administrators and supervisors in order to identify troublesome areas of the contract or other impediments to administrative discretion and flexibility. The board will need to assess whether newly planned educational programs, changing operational needs, or the opening of a new building will require negotiations over affected terms and conditions of employment. Throughout the negotiations process, the board team needs to confer with administrators to understand the effect that negotiated changes would have on district operations. NJSBA provides a contract analysis of a district’s collective bargaining agreement as a dues-based service.

Guidelines for Success

For both practical and legal reasons, the board’s negotiations team- not the full board- conducts the actual negotiations. To enable the team to bargain effectively, the board must develop parameters, or guidelines, for an acceptable settlement. These guidelines address the board’s issues. The process of establishing parameters focuses the board on its goals, objectives, and priorities.

Bargaining parameters give the board’s negotiations team the necessary direction to plan its negotiations strategy and its timing for responses and counterproposals. Most important, parameters enable the team to reach a tentative agreement that will be supported and ratified by the board. Although guidelines are established at the beginning of negotiations, the team may need to ask the board to reassess the parameters, as negotiations progress. In some instances, the original parameters will be reaffirmed by the board; in other instances they may need to be modified based on new information or on a re-evaluation of what is realistic and achievable.

Locking in the Numbers

Early in the process, the parties should agree on a scattergram, or placement of staff on the salary guide, and calculate the salary base. Once the parties have signed off on the scattergram, the standard practice is to freeze that scattergram and salary base for the purpose of determining salary increases and salary guide construction over the entire term of the contract. If this is not done, the parties may not be able to reach an agreement over salary increases because there is no clear understanding of the actual cost of the settlement.

In addition, if the board were to modify the scattergram based on personnel changes (e.g., new hires, retirements, resignations, leaves of absences, horizontal guide advancement), the board may inadvertently give the union the “breakage” money. Breakage refers to the savings that occurs when a teacher retires or leaves the district and a new teacher is hired at a lower salary rate. It is standard for the breakage to revert to the board. It is not a windfall, it is used to cover other costs of employment. The board will not run the risk of spending more than it agreed to or giving the union the breakage money if it follows the standard practice of freezing the scattergram and salary base.

Using Comparative Data

Comparative data is commonly used by both the board and the union to support their arguments and positions. However, boards must understand the limited nature of comparative data. Boards should recognize that the union has carefully chosen data from other districts’ contracts or settlements to bolster its claims. Yet, there may be little or no basis for the union’s comparisons, or the information may be purposely limited to distort the true picture. Boards must do their own research and analysis so that they can refute the union’s claims, offer more relevant comparisons, justify their own proposals, or simply indicate that other districts’ settlements are neither relevant nor compelling to the outcome of this district’s negotiations. That being said, comparative data should not be viewed as determinative. Ultimately, program needs, student achievement goals, and affordability within the 2 percent property tax levy cap must drive the eventual settlement.

Health Insurance Must Be Discussed

Given the continued rise in costs of health insurance, boards are seeking some means of addressing these costs at the bargaining table. In order to be an informed and effective persuader in negotiations, it is crucial that the board team meet with an insurance consultant prior to the onset of bargaining.

Negotiations is a “Trade-Off”

The union would probably prefer to ignore the board’s issues and keep the discussion focused on its own issues. In fact, the union would spend every negotiations session extracting concessions from the board, if the board allowed. Thus, it is incumbent upon the board to ensure that its issues are addressed as well. Negotiations require strong communication skills.

Obviously, the board team needs to listen to the union to discern priorities and possible compromise solutions. But the board team also needs to thoroughly explain its proposals and consistently and repeatedly demonstrate firm commitment to these issues. To achieve the board’s goals, the board negotiating team should ensure that any concessions made to union issues are contingent on the board receiving concessions on board issues. This is known as a “trade-off” and is key to ensuring that bargaining really is a two-way street.

Hiring a Professional

While boards must engage in thorough preparation and must establish the parameters for negotiations, they would be well-advised to consider the services of a professional negotiator. Professional representatives know the many aspects of the law that affect the negotiations process as well as the negotiation issues. They are skilled in the use of negotiations strategy, tactics, and timing. They understand the rules of contract language interpretation and can write language that will protect the board’s interests. Finally, they can save the board money by preventing costly errors. Boards that have not already retained a professional to represent them and are considering the advantages of professional representation should begin the selection process early to identify someone who will best meet the district’s needs.

Patience is Important

One of the most important aspects to a successful, effective negotiations process is patience. Sometimes there is a strong desire to just get it done and over, without regard for the consequences. However, trying to speed up the process will adversely affect the board’s ability to accomplish its goals. Every set of negotiations has its own pace. Succumbing to pressure tactics or rushing the process may result in an ill-advised concession and abandonment of important goals. Remaining patient and staying the course will enable the board to obtain an effective and productive settlement.

NJSBA is Here to Help

The tips included in this article are intended to be a jumping off point for boards going into negotiations. For those currently in negotiations, these tips serve to reiterate and underscore effective bargaining practices. However, this list is not all-inclusive. There are many more practices that lead to effective negotiations. Much more could be written about each tip. Therefore, boards should avail themselves of other resources.